February for Russia
By Kirill Vasiliev, United Communist Party of Russia (OKP)
The fact that out of the entire array of phenomena that make up the February Revolution, Zyuganov specially singled out the theme of Freemasonry (i.e., some secret sect, hidden from prying eyes) is not accidental. “Conspiracy! Behind the scenes! Foreign forces!” — That’s the usual reaction an uninvolved philistine utters when his familiar picture of social reality changes with kaleidoscopic speed. At the same level are the explanations of ordinary politicians, if an event makes a fuss in their familiar parliamentary turf. Yes, the February Revolution for Zyuganov (this illustrious man of modern politics) is a case of bygone days. But here the approach is important to understanding social reality. Assuming that the February revolution was not a conspiracy, but a monumental intervention of the masses into politics, the question arises, how is the KPRF to hold people back from such an intervention today? And what need will there be for Zyuganov if this intervention takes place again?
Therefore it is particularly important to us, the communists, people who are not afraid of such an intervention, but rather feel the need to promote it in every way, to identify and understand for ourselves what February 1917 was.
Before the storm
Assessing the state of the Romanov Empire on the eve of the revolution, the Russian poet Alexander Blok wrote: “At the end of 1916, all members of the Russian state bodies were affected by a disease, which could no longer pass by itself or be cured by ordinary means, but required a complicated and dangerous operation. … The main impetus to the development of the disease,” noted Block, “came from the war; in its third year of ravishing the state organism, revealing to all its dilapidated state, and depriving it of its last creative forces. “
Today it is no secret that the world war of 1914-1918 was carried out for global domination, for the redivision of the world, for new colonies and markets. Russia, as a great power, could not, on the one hand, refuse to participate in this war, and on the other – was not up to the task. The Russian Empire, having certain territorial interests in Persia, Armenia, Galicia, however, did not have and could not (because of its backwardness) have in the international arena the same voice which its allies — Britain and France – had. Being a privileged servant of these states, Russia, however, bore the main load of the slaughter of peoples. During the war the Russian army lost more men than any other army, namely, about 2.5 million people, or 40% of all losses of the Entente armies. And if in the first months of the war the soldiers talked little about what is happening, then the years of bitter defeats, famines, disease, and death had done their job. Firm belief in the meaninglessness of what was happening penetrated the consciousness of an increasing number of soldiers. “Anyone who comes near the army must come away with a full and committed impression of unconditional moral disintegration of the troops” — so the Petrograd Gendarme Administration assessed the situation at the front in the autumn of 1916. One can hardly find a more objective source in this case. Such reports were not for propaganda.
Were things better in the rear, the vast reservoir from which Tsarism drew human forces for the war — in the village? It is doubtful. By 1905, 30,000 large landowners owned 70 million acres of land in European Russia. The same amount of land belonged to 10 million peasant families. During the war the government took from the village 13 million farmers and about 2 million horses. The weak economy became weaker, the poor — poorer. The conditions for a new wave of agrarian revolts not only had not disappeared, but were compounded by the nightmare of the world slaughter. After the defeat of the revolution of 1905-1907, the Russian people were preparing for a new settling of accounts with the landlords and the autocracy.
Speaking of the situation of the working population of Russia, conservative “scholars” like to speculate about how many buckets of vodka and pounds of oysters a proletarian’s monthly wages could buy. However, the national income per capita in Russia as of 1914, when compared with the other great powers that entered the world war, was the lowest — much lower than in the U.S., Britain, France and Austria-Hungary. There was an even more precise indicator of the workers’ relationship to their status — the growth of strike activity. 1915 gives us 156,000 participants in political strikes, and 1916 gives 310,000, but in January-February 1917, a wave of 600,000 political strikers rises. It was enough for a small jolt to unleash the workers’ storm.
The most far-sighted representatives of the upper classes of society too realized that drama was brewing. The leader of the Kadet Party, Pavel Miliukov, pointed to an ever-growing number of people “who hoped to prevent spontaneous revolution by a palace coup, with the deposition of the royal couple.” The existence of such plans are confirmed by police officials. Thus, the head of the Petrograd Okhrana General Globachev in his “top secret” report of January 26, 1917, said that the “best and leading circles of the liberal opposition are already thinking about who and what kind of responsible portfolio they will be able to seize.” Among the opposition-conspirators appear the names of prominent figures of the State Duma and the State Council, the military-industrial and Zemsky movements, bankers, industrialists, high officials, and even Grand Dukes. “What will happen and how it will happen,” said the Okhrana, “is difficult to judge, but in any case, the militant opposition and the public is certainly not wrong about one thing: an event of extreme importance and fraught with extraordinary consequences for Russian statehood is not far off. “
And what of the crowned Romanov — Emperor Nicholas II? Did he see the full depth of the abyss sprawling beneath? Historical literature contains a detailed description of the psychology of the last Russian monarch. His cowardice, cruelty, treachery and cynical fatalism said a lot. But most importantly: the Tsar did not possess a single quality consistent with the mission of leading Russia. On February 1, 1917, Chairman of the State Duma Mikhail Rodzianko wrote to Nicholas: “In a moment of terrible danger, the worst policy is to turn a blind eye to the seriousness of the situation … The position of Russia is catastrophic.” The ruler did not deem it necessary to respond to this warning. A month remained before the fall of Russian autocracy.
The collapse of Tsarism
In the last ten days of February 1917 in Petrograd, difficulties with the supply of bread began. People lined up outside shops in long queues — “tails.” On February 21 the ransacking of stores began. With shouts of “Bread!”, crowds of townspeople surrounded the bakeries and demonstrated in the streets. Workers went on strike on February 22 at the largest enterprises in Petrograd. On the same day, having received assurances from the government about its control of the situation, Nicholas II left the city and headed for Mogilev to play Commander-in-Chief.
On February 23 (March 8), the left parties traditionally celebrated International Working Women’s Day. This holiday was a good reason for the deployment of the strike and street movements. With the active participation of the underground groups of Social Democrats (especially the Bolsheviks), more than 120,000 workers went on strike. The giants of urban industry stopped. People poured into the streets everywhere, moving towards the center of the city. To the demand for bread they added demands to stop the war and for the elimination of autocracy. The first clashes occurred with the police and Cossacks. Small actions turned into a citywide political strike, and together with it — a revolution.
On February 24 and 25 demonstrations and strikes were on the rise. The strikes involved more than 300,000 workers. Salaried employees and students hastened to support them. The first victims fell, from both the demonstrators and the police. But there was encouraging news: one of the Cossack regiments refused to fire on the workers and forced a police squad to flee. Nicholas II telegraphed from Mogilev: “Resolutely curb the unrest in the capital.” Alas for the authorities: it was much easier to say than to do.
On February 27 the revolution entered the phase of armed insurrection. On the side of the workers stood tens of thousands of soldiers of the Petrograd garrison. The prison was taken by storm, the prisoners released. The arsenal, Main Post Office, telegraph, railway stations and bridges were occupied. The District Courthouse burned. The Government fully lost control of the capital. The rebels came to the walls of the Tauride Palace, seat of the State Duma. The Duma leaders of the liberal opposition were at a loss – there was not yet a guarantee of complete victory of the uprising, and the situation could not be left to chance — there was a risk they would not have time to jump on a rushing train and prevent giving power to the street. As a result, they adopted a compromise solution — to create a temporary committee of the State Duma. But only to “restore order” and “relations with individuals and institutions.” The idea of the Duma leaders was simple: in case of defeat of the revolution, they would be able to justify themselves before the Tsar that they did not seek to claim power, but only wanted to help prevent “anarchy.”
But this scenario did not suit the leaders of the legal left opposition — representatives of Menshevik organizations, which at this stage represented the majority of workers. And the same day, February 27, in the same building of the Tauride Palace, eminent socialists created an Interim Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The Exeuctive Committee announceed the elections in the plants and on the same evening, opened the first meeting of the Soviet. Leading positions were occupied the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, but a Bolshevik faction also formed. The Bolsheviks issued a manifesto which called for the establishment of a democratic republic, the introduction of an 8-hour working day, the confiscation of the landlords’ land, and ending the war. But the Bolshevik forces did not yet lead the masses; they were only emerging from hiding, they did not know their strenth, their leaders were still in exile and prison.
Meanwhile, the right-wing Socialists — the Mensheviks and SRs — led by the idea that what happened was a bourgeois revolution, reached an agreement with the bourgeoisie, represented by the Provisional Committee of the Duma. On the night of February 28, the committee announced its readiness to take power and form a provisional government. At the same time, the leaders of the Duma were negotiating with the generals, “polishing” different scenarios for saving the monarchy “in the English style” with the transfer of the throne from Nicholas to his young son Alexis or brother Michael. Pushed into a corner by everyone, including the military high command and his own relatives, the Emperor signed his abdication from the throne on March 2, and transfered power to his brother Michael. But the hopes of the bourgeoisie to enthrone Tsar Michael II controlled by them was in vain. The rebel workers and soldiers would no longer accept any monarchical combination and indignantly rejected the idea of the continuing domination of the “Romanov gang.” On March 3, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich signed the act of non-acceptance of authority and asked all citizens to obey the Provisional Government until the convening of the Constituent Assembly.
Thus ended the three-century reign of the Romanov dynasty in Russia and the Russian autocracy sunk into oblivion. Formally, the country would be declared a republic only on September 1, 1917, but even in those days of March it was clear to all that there was no return to the past.
‘The second revolution’
While in Switzerland, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin gave an thorough characterization of what was happening at home: “That the revolution succeeded so quickly and—seemingly, at the first superficial glance—so radically, is only due to the fact that, as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings have merged, and in a strikingly “harmonious” manner. Namely, the conspiracy of the Anglo-French imperialists, who impelled Milyukov, Guchkov and Co. to seize power for the purpose of continuing the imperialist war, for the purpose of conducting the war still more ferociously and obstinately, for the purpose of slaughtering fresh millions of Russian workers and peasants in order that the Guchkovs might obtain Constantinople, the French capitalists Syria, the British capitalists Mesopotamia, and so on. This on the one hand. On the other, there was a profound proletarian and mass popular movement of a revolutionary character (a movement of the entire poorest section of the population of town and country) for bread, for peace, for real freedom.
“It would simply be foolish, Lenin sharply chastised proponents of conspiracy theories, “to speak of the revolutionary proletariat of Russia ‘supporting’ the Cadet-Octobrist imperialism, which has been “patched up” with English money and is as abominable as tsarist imperialism. The revolutionary workers were destroying, have already destroyed to a considerable degree and will destroy to its foundations the infamous tsarist monarchy. They are neither elated nor dismayed by the fact that at certain brief and exceptional historical conjunctures they were aided by the struggle of Buchanan, Guchkov, Milyukov and Co. …”
These words are the answer to the nagging of modern politicians about “Freemasons, who ruined a great country.” You can forever produce estimates of the members of secret societies and foreign agents among ministers, parliamentarians and Grand Dukes. The decisive role for the fate of the monarchy was not a game and could not be. With the “Freemasons” or without them, the days of the Russian autocracy were numbered. It collapsed, like a rotten tree in high winds.
Dogmatic “Marxists,” and often “left patriots” beside them, like to put the bill for the February Revolution on the bourgeoisie’s account. The workers and soldiers began the work so well, they say, and yet the government still passed to the same bloodsuckers and their SR-Menshevik yes-men. All this is true, but the question arises: Does this gives us the right to judge the February Revolution only by the conduct of the Provisional Government? Can we completely neglect the situation of relative freedom established after the insurrection that gave the Bolsheviks, the real workers’ leaders, the opportunity to openly fight for a profound transformation?
Lenin, who delivered much deserved barbs to the master conciliators who passed the power to the factory owners and landlords, did not however think of equating the situation in Russia “before” and “after” February. According to Lenin, the main thing, the undoubted achievement of the revolution, was the emergence of a still-weak, informal, “still undeveloped,” but already existing workers ‘government, which expressed the interests of the proletariat and the poorest part of the entire urban and rural population — the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The leader of the Bolsheviks saw great potential in legally appearing Soviets (albeit temporarily occupied by compromisers) and then, in the eight months to October, as the incorrigible historical optimist Lenin concludes: “… the proletariat, utilising the peculiarities of the present transition situation, can and will proceed, first, to the achievement of a democratic republic and complete victory of the peasantry over the landlords, instead of the Guchkov-Milyukov semi-monarchy, and then to socialism, which alone can give the war-weary people peace, bread and freedom.” To be able to take “the surest path to the next stage of the revolution or to the second revolution” — that is Lenin’s perspective on post-February Russia.
It took only eight months, and what seemed to many the fantastic transition to the “second revolution” took place. In place of the nobles, professional parliamentarians and marshals of the nobility, a government of workers and peasants moved to the forefront of Russian history, led by what was yesterday the smallest, persecuted, slandered, educated in “prison universities” Bolshevik Party — the communists. Within months, allowing for the masses to learn that the February regime was unable to solve the general democratic tasks, October 1917 dramatically turned the page of history and the building of an entirely different society began.
Socialist October was made possible in part because bourgeois February cleared the field. After all, to reach the “second revolution,” the “first” was necessary. Don’t forget this.
Translated by Greg Butterfield